As a privileged white male in one of the most affluent societies on Earth, I look around and I see that life is good. There is great food, great literature, great art. There is Beethoven and Bob Dylan, Cormac McCarthy and John Steinbeck, Van Gogh and Alex Gray. There are beautiful places, beautiful beaches, beautiful sunsets, beautiful women. There is Firefly.
But, as a human not entirely blind with a working internet connection and a bit of travel under my belt, I also see that there is a lot of bad. People starve to death every day, overdose on drugs, are sold into sex slavery, are killed in war, are killed for money, are killed for revenge, are killed just because somebody thought it was a good idea at the time. Even here, in the capital city of the United States, people will freeze on the streets over the next few months.
One of the most common objections I hear to the existence of a good God is that such an entity could not allow the evil in our world and still properly be called good. As I see it, there are a few ways to look at this problem. First, you can say that there is no God. If you abandon a higher power, though, you must be prepared to accept the consequences. If there is nothing higher than this, our mortal coil, than wars, genocide and starvation are not evil. They are simply progress. In this view evolution has no purpose; it is simply adaptation to conditions. In other words, whoever wins is “most right.” If Hitler had succeeded in his eugenics programs, the Aryan Reich would have been the future of human evolution. As it is, European colonialism has already proven the superiority of white genetics and culture around the world. If there is no higher power, words like “evil” and “inhuman” are meaningless.
The second view regularly put forward, at least in the west, is the Christian/Muslim/Judaic idea of God: namely, that he exists, and is controlling the events of history and personal lives toward some future goal: “all things work together for the good of those who love him.” It is this view that the objection above refers to, and it is a good one. Every religion has members who present anecdotal evidence of “miracles” and “faith healings,” where a sick loved one recovered against the odds, or the father to a poor family got a good raise. These are all well and good, but the truth is the scales are tipped more on the other side; for every family who gets enough money that they can buy that coveted five bedroom / two bath house, there are a dozen on the streets, and for every miraculous recovery there are two dozen deaths. If God has a plan in all of this, what then? Christians are usually the first to attack any “ends justify the means” argument, but it seems to me there is nowhere this applies more than in history itself. I, for one, cannot combine the idea of a personal God who is controlling history with the sort of atrocities our history contains–let alone the histories allegedly ordered by that God himself (take your pick–from the Manifest Destiny justifications for slaughtering the Native Americans to the Judaic conquest of Canaan, “God” is one of the most popular causes cited in most of history’s premodern genocides).
I see a third option. I see too much beauty in the world, unexplainable by basic evolutionary theory, for our frail mortality to be all there is. I see too much ugliness for it all to be the work of the Christian god. In both–in the beauty and the ugliness combined–I see a gift, and one that is on this planet ours alone. That is the gift of responsibility.
Many naive souls who have never experienced nature will often attribute to it a sort of Disney-inspired, sunlight filled goodness where all the wild creatures work in harmony and accord, to the music of bluebirds’ songs. “Man,” such souls say, self-righteously, “is the only species that kills its own kind.” This is (to borrow a term Americans should use far more often) bollocks. The animal kingdom is full of death: death of prey, death of predator, death of competition, death of offspring, death of mates. In some species of ape the animal kingdom even has war.
And here’s the thing. Such death is beautiful. The way a mountain lion stalks a deer in the deep cold silence of the northern mountains, the way it runs with twenty feet between each bound, the sheer power with which it takes its quarry down, is elegance incarnate. It isn’t Disney, or the garden of Eden, but it is how it should be, and it is good.
So what about us? What is this gift of responsibility, and how does it separate us from the animals? Why is an owl stalking mice beautiful, but not a serial killer stalking college students? If there is nothing higher than us, there is no difference between the two.
I believe there is a God. I also believe he has given the human race as a species something extraordinarily valuable, and perhaps too complex to be properly called a “gift.” That is our consciousness, our language, our responsibility as free individuals and not simply animals acting on instinct and conditioning. Because we are aware of ourselves, of our surroundings, and of that ineffable “Something” beyond ourselves, we have the option of choosing a higher road–and it is that very freedom of choice that makes the lower road wrong. The owl kills because she is made to kill, and she is beautiful for it. We ourselves may even kill an animal and be right doing it, if we do it with respect and out of necessity. But when we kill another human being, when we end another consciousness, that is when we make our choice to be merely animal when we could have been human. And because we have that choice, our being animal is what we call evil.
Now, were God to step in and stop us in such acts of evil, we would no longer have the choice to be animal or to be human. We would simply be acting as programmed–according to instinct, doing “good” just as the owl kills and the cow chews its cud. We would be part of, but not participating in, creation. “Good” would have no value. Likewise, if doing good were always simple and easy, that too would lose it’s value. A fine meal given to a fat child who’s done nothing to earn it is worth nothing. The same meal given to a man who has worked hard for it is one of the best things in the world. A thing that is intrinsically free is also, by definition, worthless. Freedom is not entitlement to good things; freedom is the capacity to work for them.
So yes, the world is full of pain. The world is full of evil men doing evil deeds. Life is a struggle. But if it were not, what would be the point? Pleasure is worthless without pain, good is meaningless without evil, and our actions only truly resonate when we bleed for them. God is not coming to comfort us, for we are not children any longer. It’s time we stood on our own two feet and stopped looking for help from the government, from fate, from God. There is work to be done, true enough. The responsibility for doing it is ours.